The friend group at the center of Halina Reijn’s hair-raising feature Bodies Bodies Bodies is a toxic bunch.

They, of course, would vehemently reject that characterization. So sharply drawn are these characters that I can hear them now. David (Pete Davidson), the perpetually coked-out friend, would be defensive: “What do you mean by toxic? Did you get that off Twitter?” His girlfriend, Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), who can’t go 30 seconds without reminding everyone she’s an actress, would issue a correction:

“I’m not toxic, I’m an empath.” Alice (Rachel Sennott), the legitimately dramatic one, might be more understanding: “I mean … we have done toxic things.” Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), the type-A one who defines herself by her differences from her friends, would roll her eyes. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), a recovering addict and the worst at keeping up with the group chat, would smile coyly — if she even reacted at all.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Always fun, occasionally twisted.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson, Rachel Sennott, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Lee Pace
Director: Halina Reijn
Screenwriters: Sarah Delappe, Kristen Roupenian (based on the story by)

1 hour 35 minutes

In this movie, their protestations wouldn’t make the claim less true. These wealthy young adults, tethered to each other by shared history more than anything else, are not good to themselves — let alone to each other. That much becomes clear when they gather at David’s remote vacation house on the eve of a forecasted hurricane.

Pete Davidson and Amandla Stenberg in ‘Bodies Bodies Bodies’: Film

Review | SXSW 2022

What is supposed to be a boisterous, bacchanalian getaway quickly turns into a terrifying backdrop against which Reijn conducts a shrewd study of root-bound friendships, hyper-individualism and betrayal in the digital age.

Bodies Bodies Bodies is the Dutch actress’ second directorial feature. Her debut, Instinct (2019), chronicled an illicit relationship between a therapist and the incarcerated sex offender to whom she has been assigned. That film, which went on to be the 2020 Oscar submission for the Netherlands, signaled Reijn’s interest in conducting exacting psychological character studies.

She reinforces those predilections in Bodies Bodies Bodies, which is not a traditional slasher thriller. Reijn turns the genre on its head, using its fatal stakes and tropes as a means of understanding the limits and consequences of these characters’ egos. The real threat is their monstrous behavior.

It would be easy to see this A24 release as a shallow skewering of younger millennials and members of Gen Z. Although Bodies Bodies Bodies indulges in a fair number of jabs at a type of chronically online 20-something, it makes clear efforts to avoid condescension. Sarah DeLappe, whose play The Wolves was a Pulitzer finalist in 2017, has penned a screenplay (based on a story by “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian) that, for all of its predictability, demonstrates a sensitivity to the challenges baked into the ridiculousness of one’s early 20s.

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The characters might be easy to hate because of the superficial ways they project their anxieties, but that doesn’t make what fundamentally troubles them any less real.

Bodies Bodies Bodies opens with Stenberg’s Sophie making out with her new girlfriend, Bee (Maria Bakalova of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm). Their steamy moment takes a sentimental turn when Sophie says, “I love you.” Her confession is met with silence, and the film cuts to the two lovers in a car. They are driving to David’s house for this party and Bee, a reserved person whose working-class background differs from Sophie and her friends’ wealthier ones, is nervous. Sophie’s attempts to relax her — variations of “Don’t worry, everyone will love you” — aren’t reassuring.

When the duo arrives at the palatial home, surrounded by acres of verdant forest, they head to the pool, where Sophie’s friends are conducting a breath-holding contest. The scene is one of the most striking in Bodies Bodies Bodies, showcasing DP Jasper Wolf’s sensuous camerawork. We see Jordan, Alice, Emma, David and Alice’s 40-year-old lover whom she met on Tinder, Greg (Lee Pace), suspended in the water, their bodies floating against a textured celadon blue background, before they each slowly emerge to greet Sophie and Bee.

Scenes that establish the distinctly millennial/Gen Z milieu and each character’s role in the friend group follow. David and Emma’s relationship is scarred by a lack of honesty and a stunted sex life. Jordan harbors animus toward Sophie of the kind reserved for those who have mishandled our hearts. It’s obvious that everyone kind of hates Alice, a podcast host equal parts sympathetic to those around her and oblivious to her surroundings. Greg, her boyfriend, just seems there for a good time.

The storm starts soon after Sophie and Bee arrive, forcing the crew to retreat indoors. They pop open a bottle of champagne, aggressively down shots and snort lines of coke. Sophie, whose recent disappearance is attributed to a stint in rehab, doesn’t participate.

When imbibing loses its charm, the group decide to play their favorite game — a twisted version of Mafia that often leads to painful confessions and tears (usually from Emma, the empathic actor). In their version of the game, one player is designated killer and the others hide from them. Once a “murder” is committed, the player who finds the body must yell “bodies, bodies, bodies.” All the players convene and vote on the suspected killer.

The first round leads to a flurry of accusations and admissions that leave David angry and Emma in tears. Soon, a throat has been slit, the death setting off a paranoid and dangerous chain of events. Fans of the genre might struggle to fully buy Bodies Bodies Bodies’ slasher intrigue, but it would be difficult to deny the strength of the performances.

Sennott, who played Danielle in Emma Seligman’s deftly claustrophobic Shiva Baby, stands out with her precise comedic timing and chilling dramatic swerves. Herrold and Stenberg hold their own, too, as they expertly navigate their characters’ knotty relationship through body language and stolen glances.

Reijn indulges in several longer takes that give the performers an opportunity to drill into the nuances of their characters and add a bit of edge to the horror scenes. That, coupled with the jittery iPhone lighting (the power goes out immediately), makes parts of Bodies Bodies Bodies believably frightening.

These details also bolster the film when its screenplay proves a bit shaky. Easy laughs are scored with the witty dialogue and jokes highlighting internet speak (for example, the overuse and flattening of clinical terms), but it’s hard not to wince at some corny and sensationalistic lines that don’t service character development or plot.

Bodies Bodies Bodies doesn’t have an official release date yet, but would surely make a great summer flick. Judging by the roaring crowd at its SXSW premiere, its considerable entertainment value is further augmented in the company of others.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)
Distributor: A24
Production companies: 2 AM, A24
Cast: Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakalova, Pete Davidson, Rachel Sennott, Myha’la Herrold, Chase Sui Wonders, Lee Pace
Director: Halina Reijn
Screenwriters: Sarah Delappe, Kristen Roupenian (based on the story by)
Producers: David Hinojosa, Ali Herting
Executive producers: Amandla Stenberg, Sarah DeLappe, Sebastian Bear-McClard, Dani Bernfeld, Christine D’souza Gelb, Jacob Jaffke
Director of photography: Jasper Wolf
Production designer: April Lasky
Costume designer: Katrina Danabassis
Editors: Taylor Levy, Julia Bloch
Music: Disasterpeace